Do Carbs Help Muscle Recovery?

One of the biggest parts of running culture is probably being able to eat whatever the heck we want. Also beer, although I don’t participate so much in the beer side. But carbs, and eating whatever we want is a huge part of running culture.

One of the biggest parts of running culture is probably being able to eat whatever the heck we want. Also beer, although I don’t participate so much in the beer side. But carbs, and eating whatever we want is a huge part of running culture. However, you may be asking yourself, which is good, do carbs actually help me? Do carbs actually help in muscle recovery? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

You may have seen me talk about in other videos, how carbo loading isn’t quite what it used to be. And by that, I mean, our thoughts on it have changed based on the research we’ve done, and knowing that we don’t necessarily need to eat this huge amount of pasta before a race. But what about afterward? Do we need to get that fuel back in? You may be familiar with the 30-minute window where after you’re done working out, there’s this magic 30 minutes where nutrients are absorbed at a faster rate than other times. Well, that may not be the whole story. And there’s all these other kinds of videos that you want to learn about this subject on this channel, so hit that subscribe button, but we’re going to cover in brief here in this video.

And that is first, that 30 minute window may not be quite as short as you think it is. It’s often quoted, again, 30 minutes, sometimes people say 60 minutes. But if you go all the way back to Episode 19 of the Smart Athlete Podcast, it’s the other show I do here on this YouTube channel, when I was talking to an ultra marathoner, Stephanie Howe Violett, she actually did research on this window, and her research shows that it actually may be closer to even 90 minutes that this kind of high intake interval happens where you can take in these carbs and replenish glycogen stores. But it doesn’t quite get us to the point of should we be doing this? Is this the right thing for us to achieve what we want and recover properly?

If you’re like me, your tendency after a long session, maybe to grab something like a gel, or maybe you’re going to go Whole Foods and chomp on some bread. Either way, we’re kind of trained to take in these carbs. And think, hey, I need to do this. The suggestion actually is often somewhere between one to one and a half grams per kilogram of body weight for recovery. But that suggestion comes -- looking at elite athletes or professional athletes, and they live very different lives than you and me. We probably don’t work out near as much as they do, number one. But even if you do, then does it still apply to you? Well, if you work out as much as they do, and you’re as lean as they are, and you’re competing at the highest levels that you can, probably. But for the rest of us, there are other mitigating circumstances that may change how we approach this.

The first is that when we take in carbs, immediately after exercise, there is a potential downside. And that is that studies have found that if you’re trying to burn body fat, that is if you’re trying to get leaner, the body is less likely to burn fat as fuel post-exercise, if you are taking in carbs, which makes sense, right? Your body wants to use some fuel, and carbs are going to be easier to get and easier to burn than body fat, which is the point of storing fat in your body is reserves. So, if you’re giving your body carbs, it’s going to use those because it knows, hey, those are coming in, I can use those, we’re going to be fine. But if they’re not coming in, you can force your body to focus on burning fat a little bit more to try to get a little bit leaner.

The other thing that studies have found is that when you’re taking in carbs, it actually suppresses some of the genes that activate for muscle adaptation. That is the process when our muscles get stronger, they repair themselves and are able to cope with the higher training loads. This is basically what happens when we tear muscles down, genes get activated, proteins go in, muscles get rebuilt, they’re stronger than before, and now we can go faster. So, carbs actually suppress that a little bit.

Those two things are potential downsides. But there are mitigating circumstances where we might still want to take in carbs. And that situation largely has to do with our immune system and the immune response that we have. If you aren’t aware when we work out, there is a depression of our immune system. So, instead of immunosuppression, which is when somebody has some kind of illness that allows our immune system to not work normally, it’s immuno depression. So, it’s a temporary suppression and temporary lowering of our immune system because of working out, which makes us more susceptible to illnesses.

However, the intake of carbs seems to activate or get our immune system back in working order faster than if we don’t take them. So, unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as saying, yes, absolutely, you should take in carbs. Or no, you absolutely should not. It’s a weighing of these pros and cons, figuring out what’s your particular situation. The most clear cut way I can say, absolutely you should take in carbs is if you have multiple high intensity exercises, or workouts or races back to back to back that you need to get in.

Then absolutely, because at that point, it’s less about recovery, and more about fueling. When it comes to performance, fueling is critical. And we use carbs for fuel at high intensity. If you don’t have them, then you’re going to be down. You’re not going to be able to performance at a high enough level, or the highest level that you possibly could.

Same thing happens with keto athletes. We’ve seen this in a number of studies at this point. They are much better at burning fat, but their ability to reach a very high level of performance, the highest they’re possible of doing, is suppressed because of the lack of carbohydrates. I think that’s a key indicator for us that if we need to perform as in, you’ve got a race on Sunday, and a race on Saturday or I guess Saturday and Sunday, then you need to take in those carbs and try to take it in in that window; 30 minutes if preferable, but as Stephanie says on that episode, I talked to her up to 90 minutes.

Now if you don’t have a need to perform at a high level, back to back, then you can probably wait. It’s not going to kill you. The thing that I figured out with talking to all these different registered dieticians on the Smart Athlete Podcast, again, here on this channel. So, hit subscribe, check that out here in a minute, is that, yes, there’s this magic window that we’d love to talk about. And we say that’s the optimal for recovery. But if you’re trying to get leaner, you want to burn a little bit of body fat, and you want to wait until outside that window, that’s okay.

Because if you don’t have another high performance to do immediately the next day or later that day, then taking in carbs at some point during the day, your body’s going to put them to use and turn them into glycogen, put them back in your muscles, and you’re going to be able to use them.

So, the recovery window isn’t as crucial as we think it is. Unless you are an elite athlete with multiple workouts today, you’ve got back to back races, something like that. If you’ve got a longer time frame, it isn’t as crucial for muscle recovery that you get those carbs in immediately. So, what questions do you have for me you’d like answered on this channel? Leave them down in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you. I’ll see you next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.


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